Have you noticed I like to overthink things about horses on Thursdays and Fridays lately? Here’s the next installment of me being a headcase …
One thing crucial to riding horses competitively is a rider’s ability to concentrate. Zeroing in on what needs to be done in the saddle takes a body awareness, focus, and connection to the animal that no other sport requires. Developing and maintaining a high level of concentration while in the saddle takes years of practice, but sometimes a rider has a natural focus, an instinctive aptitude for being present in the moment while riding such that every other care, from job stress and taxes to what to eat for dinner, falls away.
I have tried to develop this aptitude over the years. It starts with learning and internalizing the basics, strengthening the leg, developing an independent seat. Develop a sense of comfort in the saddle regardless of what the horse may do. Beyond that, it takes mental acuity and focus, and ability to independently control every single body part, down to the pinky fingers. Once all that is established (which in me is still a work in progress) then a rider can focus on the horse: developing gaits, moderating pace, strengthening, conditioning, and training. Often, horse and rider are learning at the same time. The rider’s brain and the horse’s brain have to be in concert to make progress in any of these things. Short of being an “animal communicator” or psychic (*cough*), this trait takes a lifetime to develop, so feeling inadequate is second nature to many riders. But the good stuff has to become second nature, too.
When I am on a horse, I am pretty much focused on the horse. It is one of the few times I have no issues staying mentally present. I think it’s true for many riders–while mounted, the rest of the world disappears. But harnessing that focus to accomplish what I want while riding? That is significantly harder to tack down.
Last night, I rode Eli after he had 3 days off and a few days without turnout. He had an excess of energy even though the day had been warm and he still had a little mud on him from turnout exploits (you know … bitey-face, the pawing game, rolling). I could tell he was in a good, receptive mood–the tenor of his grumpiness fluctuates from truly grumpy to playfully irritable and last night he contented himself with halfhearted nips and lazy tail swishes while I groomed him and tacked him up. These are good signs.
Under saddle, he displayed a boisterousness but nothing too unmanageable. This is where the concentration part comes in. When Eli gets energetic, staying focused on the horse is more about survival than accomplishing particular exercises or working on the quality of his gaits. I have no problem staying in the moment under these circumstances. I ride according to Eli’s body movements and adjust my own, reactively. There is very little that is proactive about what I am doing to ride Eli–it’s more like convincing him not to buck the entire time, and most of the time he doesn’t. My concentration is spent trying to get him to concentrate. I basically end on a note of relaxation and obedience to reinforce that’s what he’s supposed to do.
But what about when Eli comes out of the stall relaxed and obedient, and I am not spending the ride working to get there? First, this is the horse I hope to have in my lessons, and on those days both my focus and Eli’s centers on what the lesson is about. When I have this horse, but not in a lesson, this is where the holes in my concentration feel exacerbatingly cavernous. Like, shit, I actually don’t have that much focus when tasked with moving Eli’s training forward with exercises, movements, and developing his gaits. The solution is more practice, and the longer Eli and I work together, the better I get at concentrating on riding and training the horse, not just keeping the horse from being unruly. I try to think of how my body is responding to Eli’s manner of going. I try to create a suspension in his gaits that is a step beyond natural. I teach myself patience by taking trot jumps. I reward Eli for listening and trying, and make a huge deal out of him when he does what I have asked, which enhances our communication over all.
My shortcomings are clear to me, and I know how I can not just mitigate them, but foster skills to overcome and even rid myself of these shortcomings. The brainpower this takes, for me however, is immense. I recognize that the same is most likely true for Eli. So we take small steps during the rides when we are both receptive to hearing each other, and try not to undermine progress by letting emotions cloud our judgment. Reflecting on all this, I see that my concentration is inconsistent, but not stagnant. Will I ever get to a level of concentration where not only am I in the moment, but every move is precise and effortless? Uh, no, probably not. I think very few people ever do. But trying to get there keeps me motivated like nothing else.